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Evolution of the smartphone refresh cycle, planned obsolescence and you

Al Sacco | Nov. 22, 2013
Smartphone makers are releasing more smartphones faster than ever before, and wireless carriers are rolling out new plans to make it affordable to buy new phones more often.'s Al Sacco examines this trend and asks if it's really a good thing for consumers - or just for the companies selling the products and services.

Lately I've had some trouble coming up with story ideas I'm truly excited about.

New smartphones are unveiled every month, if not every week. At the same time, I've never been a writer who struggles for ideas. So I have to ask myself, "What's going on?"

 Smartphone Planned Obsolescence

The most telling answer I can come up with is the feeling I get whenever I unpack a new smartphone I receive for review. It's a feeling of skepticism, of anxiety - of yes, boredom - because I know it's probably not going to be easy to come up with a unique angle or explain in a review why this new phone stands out from the pack. Maybe the new phone has a weak camera or bad battery life. Perhaps its display is discolored or pixelated. Does it support memory cards or have a removable battery pack?

If there's no noticeable flaw, it's going to be difficult to differentiate. That's the sad truth of today's high-end smartphone market: Most top-of-the-line handhelds released today provide comparable overall experiences, at least from a hardware perspective. (Personal software preferences and investment in mobile apps or in specific ecosystems can change this equation a bit, but I'm talking hardware here.)

And there's more pressure than ever to buy new phones more frequently.

Newer is Not Necessarily Better
The pace of innovation in the handset world has slowed to a point at which the focus on extraneous pixel counts for smartphone cameras (I'm looking at you, Lumia 1020), fingerprint scanners that may or may not actually be secure (hi, iPhone 5s), cool-but-mostly-useless UI gestures (all of the latest Samsung Galaxy releases) and absurdly gigantic displays (take your pick of today's "phablets") are among the most notable selling points for new phones.

General "newness," is also as powerful a selling point as any, as in "It's the latest and greatest, so it must be better." This last line of reasoning is a common one, especially among people who pride themselves on being tech-savvy gadget geeks. It doesn't matter if it's really a better device, it's newer.

At the same time, there's more pressure to upgrade more frequently: From the people around you, from companies selling smartphones and from wireless carriers.

Everybody has a smartphone these days. More than ever before, the devices are fashion accessories, status symbols and cultural differentiators. It's an unfortunate truth, but harsh judgments are made every day based on smartphone "fanboism." If you're an Apple fanboi, and you see someone in a bar using an older BlackBerry, there's a good chance you'll quickly judge them. (BlackBerrys aren't cool, you heard?)


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